This Week in the ECAC: Jan. 22, 2004

It was a forgettable start to the season for Tim Taylor’s youthful Yale Bulldogs.

A frightful Halloween weekend performance in North Dakota left the Elis licking their wounds upon being swept by a combined 18-4 score.

“It was a tough start to the season,” said Taylor. “We were slapped around in North Dakota and it knocked us way back in our development and with confidence.”

Through November 21, Yale’s record was a disappointing 1-6-0 and the club had allowed an amazing 45 goals while scoring just 14. The Bulldogs’ lone win was a 3-2 overtime victory over Colgate.

“We had a lot of adjustments to make after those losses,” Taylor said. “Our message after the games was that ‘you are never as bad as you think you are when you feel terrible, or as good as you think you are when you think you’re great.'”

By November 30, the Elis had bounced back to win two of four. And in the first weekend of December, Yale traveled to New York’s Capital Region and swept Rensselaer and Union.

“We inched back in November,” explained Taylor, “and the sweep was a springboard.”

Yale is 4-2-0 since those key victories and has won four in a row heading into an exhibition game this weekend against the U.S. Under-18 team. The Elis’ hot streak, kicked off by an upset of New Hampshire, has pushed them up the league standings, into a third-place tie with Dartmouth.

“We feel good that we’re making progress,” said the bench boss. “The team seems to have found our personality and identity.

“Our strength is in moving the puck and being patient offensively. And now were getting good goaltending from Josh Gartner. Our motto is to get better each day, from weekend to weekend.”

They’ve been doing just that and Gartner has been one of the main reasons.

“He clearly won the number-one job last year,” Taylor said. “He played great hockey in the second half — in January, February and the playoffs. This year he came in as the number one, but we had a freshman (Matt Modelski) and Peter Cohen, who played a lot last season, and we wanted to play them as well.

“We started the season giving them all ice time and opportunities to show what they could do. As it turned out, the lack of consistent playing time didn’t do any of them any good. It hurt Josh especially.”

Gartner has started seven of the last eight games and lost only once. He made 51 saves in the sweep of the Engineers and Dutchmen, 29 stops in the win over UNH, 45 against Clarkson, 31 versus St. Lawrence and another 39 against Connecticut. With all the action, he may be suffering from a case of rubber-itis, but he appears to have regained his form.

“His statistics may not be the greatest,” remarked Taylor about Gartner’s 4.10 goals against average and .882 save percentage, “but he’s won some games for us by himself. I think everyone here would tell you that he won that New Hampshire game for us.

“He’s settled down and is working hard. It’s unfortunate, but because of the type of team we are, no one will have good numbers.”

Yale’s resurgence can also be attributed to an improved offense. After losing Evan Wax’s 18 goals and 37 points to graduation and Chris Higgins’ 20 tallies and 40 points to the pros, there were questions as to who would make up for those numbers.

The Bulldogs have found answers in the form of two productive lines.

The top combination of sophomore Joe Zappala (15-9-24), senior Ryan Steeves (9-10-19) and sophomore Jeff Hristovski (6-15-21) has been deadly.

“Joe is having a tremendous sophomore season to date,” said Taylor. “[The line] moves the puck well. Zappala and Hristovski are snipers and can really shoot the puck and hit corners. Steeves has great speed and skates very well. He compliments the line.”

The emergence of a second offensive trio — senior Vin Hellemeyer (4-4-8), sophomore Christian Jensen (5-12-17) and rookie Brad Mills (2-5-7) — has given Taylor more options.

“When teams try to shut down the Steeves line,” explained the coach, “these kids have been there to step up.”

It seems that Zappala is attracting the most attention, which isn’t surprising when you consider that seven of his 15 goals have been game-winners. While that statistic can be deceiving, Zappala has scored his share of key goals.

“He’s a fierce competitor,” said Taylor. “He wants to win very badly. Outside of his pure athletic ability, he has mental toughness. Guys like that want the puck when the game is on the line.

“We knew we’d be getting a goal-scorer when we recruited him. It’s not surprising that he’s has so much success.”

On the blueline, the Elis lost three key players to graduation: Stacey Bauman, Greg Boucher and Bryan Freeman. In their place, three veterans are sharing time with three young Bulldogs.

“Jeff Dwyer has had a great year,” said Taylor about the senior who has followed up an 18-point junior campaign with three goals and eight points thus far. “He’s really settled things down back there and has worked on his defensive play. He’s in the best shape of his life.”

Junior Joe Callahan (5-6-11), whom Taylor calls “a tower of strength,” has stepped up in a big way. Sophomore Mike Grobe, who missed all of last season, has also been instrumental.

Said Taylor, “I would take those three any day. They are as good as any threesome in the league.

“The challenge has been fitting the fourth, fifth and sixth defensemen around them. They are good players, but young. They all have things to learn.”

It’s been trial by fire for many of this year’s Bulldogs, but they appear to be fast learners.

“We just have to maintain this pace,” said their coach about his 9-10-0 (7-5-0 ECAC) squad. “My goal is for us to have a winning record overall. If we do that, we will be in good position in the ECAC.

“We need to get points out of every weekend. Harvard and Cornell may have come back to the pack a little [and] we may have the potential to be as good as last year.

“We all feel we can be.”

Round Two in the North Country

It’s been a little over two months since North Country rivals Clarkson and St. Lawrence played each other. In the season’s first matchup, the Knights scored the game-winner early in the third period and withstood a late Saints charge to escape with a 3-1 victory.

Since then, the clubs have had a similar record, with Clarkson posting a 5-5-2 mark to St. Lawrence’s 4-6-1. However, since the onset of 2004, the Knights have been the hotter team, going 4-1-1; the Saints are 1-4-1 in January.

However, as is always the case in this series, wins and losses are meaningless.

St. Lawrence swept both games from Clarkson last season, the first time the Saints had pulled off the feat since 1991-92. The Knights’ win this season at Cheel Arena snapped a three-game losing streak to SLU, but Clarkson heads to Appleton having not won in Canton since November 2000.

Despite their struggles overall, the Saints are a very different team at home, where they’ve posted a 5-4-2 mark, including five wins in their last six games. The loss was a 2-1 nailbiter to Cornell two months ago.

As the season has evolved and the conference standings have tightened, Saturday’s game is full of added importance.

The top three overall scorers in the ECAC will be featured as Clarkson’s Mac Faulkner (10-19-29) and Chris Blight (12-15-27) join St. Lawrence’s T.J. Trevelyan (15-10-25) on the ice. The Saints’ forward is tied with Zappala in overall goals (15) and has tallied four times in the last four contests.

On the blueline, each club boasts of players who have made significant impacts at both ends of the ice. SLU rookie Drew Bagnall (4-10-14) and senior Ryan Glenn (3-11-14) have been consistent forces all season, while Clarkson sophomore Chris Brekelmans (4-1-5) and freshman Matt Nickerson (3-6-9) have made timely contributions.

Between the pipes, both Kevin Ackley and Mike McKenna have seen action for the Saints. The junior netminders have similar numbers this season. Ackley is 4-10-3 with a 3.05 goals against average (GAA) and .896 save percentage. McKenna, meanwhile, is 3-4-1 with a 3.16 GAA and .886 save percentage. In Appleton, however, the duo has combined to post a 2.69 GAA and .901 save percentage.

For the Knights, sophomore Dustin Traylen has seen the bulk of the action, playing in 20 of the team’s 23 games. He’s posted an 8-7-5 record with a 2.64 GAA and .918 save percentage.

Injuries have also played a major role for both teams this season.

The Saints have sorely missed captain Josh Anderson. He’s been in and out of the lineup, playing in 18 games but accumulating only four points. His absence has prevented SLU from forming a consistent second scoring line to complement the dangerous trifecta of Trevelyan, Rich Peverley (8-13-21) and John Zeiler (7-14-21).

Clarkson continues to be hit hard on the blueline. Defensemen Mike Nagai and Michael Grenzy remain sidelined and Ken Scuderi is still questionable for Saturday. The injuries have forced the Knights to play right wing Tristan Lush on defense.

As is usually the case, the teams are evenly matched, which should make for another tight contest in this storied series.

Schafer Suspended

In the wake of last Saturday’s rant against ECAC officials, which included harsh words for referee Joel Dupree, the league levied a one-game suspension against Cornell coach Mike Schafer. He will miss Friday’s game against Vermont.

Upset at several non-calls, Schafer went off after the Big Red’s home loss to Rensselaer.

“We’ve got an official who calls ‘obstruction-interference’ when one of our best players, our leading scorer [Matt Moulson], gets hit head first into the boards,” Schafer said last weekend.

“What the [bleep] is obstruction-interference when a guy is hit head first into the boards? That’s not obstruction-interference, it’s a damn hit from behind.”

Schafer was also upset with a non-call in which Shane Hynes separated his shoulder after getting hit into the boards from behind.

“[T]he biggest thing is, Joel Dupree can’t have that kind of influence on a hockey game. He’s gotta protect Shane Hynes. He’s gotta call a five-minute major and kick the kid out of the damn game. And if he’s not doing that, he’s not doing his job. And if he’s not getting the direction from the league on that, then shame on us.”

Schafer made it clear that he wasn’t happy with the way Friday’s game against Union was officiated either.

“That’s two of the most horse[bleep] refereed games back-to-back since I’ve been associated as a head coach in this league,” he said, “and it’s damn embarrassing,”

As expected, the ECAC was not amused.

On Tuesday, Commissioner Phil Buttafuoco suspended Schafer for what he termed “a violation of league policy.” Sports leagues, as a rule, do not take kindly to criticism of officials.

For his part, Schafer apologized to the University, its athletic department, alumni and fans, as well as his friends and family. He also admitted that his actions, “left the league no choice but to suspend me.”

Cornell Players Help Cancer Fight

The Big Red has teamed up with the Ithaca Breast Cancer Alliance (IBCA) once again this season for the “Power Play for Prevention” campaign. Each time Cornell scores a man-advantage goal, the Tompkins Trust Company donates $100 to the IBCA. Additional contributions from fans are also being accepted.

The partnership was formed last year when former Cornell player and Hockey Humanitarian Award winner Sam Paolini approached the coaching staff about an issue close to his heart.

“The IBCA is the best resource for people dealing with breast cancer in Tompkins County,” Paolini said about the upstate New York organization. “Seeing the support and guidance my mother and grandmother received during their bouts, and knowing they were beating it, made me want to make sure all patients had the same opportunities to fight this disease.”

Thanks to their 17 power-play goals, the Big Red have helped raise $1,700 on the year. Pledge cards are available locally and on the Cornell hockey Web site:

Looking Sharp

We recently reported that former UVM standout Patrick Sharp had registered his first point in the NHL. On Friday, Sharp did himself one better by scoring his first NHL goal in his Philadelphia Flyers’ win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. A plus-1 with two points in nine games, he’s averaging nearly 8:30 of ice time per game.

“He’s either been well-coached or he had natural instincts,” said Flyers’ coach Ken Hitchcock to the Philadelphia Inquirer. “He’s so positionally strong for a young player, and I feel comfortable having him out there.”

In Case You Missed It

With the tie against Connecticut, Brown now leads the all-time series 4-0-1, outscoring the Huskies by a whopping 27-1 margin.

Last Friday, Colgate amassed its most penalty minutes in a game this season. Of the 46 minutes whistled against the Raiders in their game with Rensselaer, 26 came as a result of a major altercation with just 17 seconds left in the contest. The get-together involved all 10 skaters on the ice at the time.

The next night, Colgate junior Dave Thomas failed on his penalty shot attempt against Union. It was the first time since 1997 that a Raiders player was awarded a penalty shot in Starr Rink and the first ever called against the Dutchmen.

Dartmouth’s Mike Ouellette recorded his first collegiate hat trick with a four-point effort against SLU last weekend. In the same contest, rookie Dan Shribman’s game-winner was his first tally in his brief college tenure.

Dartmouth recorded its sixth tie of the year against Clarkson, setting a school record for the most ties in a year.

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before, but another ECAC team has set a new mark for overtime contests. Clarkson has played a school-record three straight overtime games and has skated in nine extra stanzas this season. One more and the Knights will have tied the school record set in 1980-81.

Vermont has connected on 20.7 percent of power-play opportunities, ranking the Catamounts tenth nationally in that category. In ECAC play, they sit in third place in power-play efficiency behind Brown and Dartmouth.

What’s On Tap

Vermont (3-15-3, 1-9-0) and Dartmouth (7-4-6, 5-1-4) travel to central New York for a weekend series against No. 12 Cornell (7-4-6, 5-2-3) and Colgate (11-8-3, 6-4-0). The Big Red leads the all-time series against UVM with a 29-12-7 mark, including a pair of victories last season by a combined 16-1 score. Cornell has won the last seven meetings in the series. The Catamounts trail in the series against the Raiders as well, 22-32-4, after splitting a pair of games last season. UVM has not won at Colgate’s Starr Rink since November 1996.

The Raiders also lead the all-time series against the Big Green by a narrow 34-32-2 margin. At home, Colgate is 18-8-2 versus Dartmouth. The teams played five times last season, including a memorable quadruple-overtime Raiders win in the opening contest of the ECAC quarterfinals. Cornell holds a 63-35-2 advantage over the Big Green. The teams split last year’s regular-season series, with Dartmouth taking the first game 5-2 and the Big Red rebounding for the 6-1 win.

Union (7-12-4, 2-8-2) hosts Atlantic Hockey’s Sacred Heart (4-12-3, 4-6-2 AH) on Friday night in the final non-league game for the Dutchmen. Union has not won since November 15 and is in the midst of a 0-10-2 nosedive. Over the last five games, the Dutchmen have managed to score only once in each contest. The Pioneers, meanwhile, are 0-5-3 in their last eight games and have not won since November 25.

Clarkson (10-8-5, 5-4-2) travels down Rt. 11 to Canton where the Knights square off against rival St. Lawrence (7-14-4, 3-7-1). The Golden Knights hold a 103-53-7 overall series lead against the Saints, but the two teams have each won five of the last 10 contests.

Rensselaer (12-9-2, 7-4-1) hosts Sacred Heart (4-12-3, 4-6-2) on Saturday in what will be the Engineers’ final non-conference game of the season. It will be the first meeting between the two schools. Rensselaer is 5-5-1 in non-league games, including a 1-1-1 mark against other Atlantic Hockey conference members. The Engineers have won four of their last five games, allowing just six goals over that span.

Brown (10-5-4, 9-3-1 ECAC) travels to Lowell on Saturday to battle UMass. The Bears hold a 3-2-2 advantage over the River Hawks in the all-time series. Brown is on a 3-0-1 streak against UML, including a 3-3 tie in Rhode Island last season.

Yale and Princeton host the U.S. Under-18 Team in a pair of exhibition games this weekend.

Adam Wodon contributed to this column.